You’d think that once you get that academic job and get through whatever process you have to go through to keep it (tenure, probation, or whatever it’s called where you live), it would be plain sailing. You have been judged by your peers to know what you are doing and be doing it well.
Unfortunately, life isn’t like that. Things change. You want new challenges. You realize that job security and academic freedom might actually allow you to explore options you’d thought too risky up to now.
On top of that, you’ve probably realized that you don’t have to do it all yourself. Getting help, even with things you have been pretty good at on your own, might enable you to do more of the stuff only you can do.
C was awarded her PhD and began a tenure-track position in the mid-1990s.
One of the things that attracted her to academia was a love of writing. She has been writing and publishing consistently throughout her career. Early journal articles were based on work developed in the context of a women’s workshop she joined as a graduate student. She has maintained long-term collaborations with colleagues she met in graduate school.
C has been successful in securing research grants to support her work and hire graduate student assistants. She is passionate about methodology and graduate training, and puts considerable effort into mentoring both the students she supervises and those she hires as research assistants.
She has been able to maintain her commitment to high quality teaching and successfully balance the demands of both.
This success has enabled her to be promoted. At the point in her life where her children are in high school, C is a full-professor. She’ll have about 15 years to go to retirement when her youngest leaves home for university.
Like many professional women, the early years of C’s career involved juggling the demands of her professional life with the demands of her family. While she has been successful, she recognizes that the next 15 years offer different opportunities:
- her relationship with her children will shift considerably
- her professional position releases her from worries about promotion
- she can travel more and even relocate if she wants to
C had already been hiring me to help her with her grant applications, so it made sense to talk to me about these possibilities.
Planning the last 15 years
In our discussions we talked about her research and the things she still wants to achieve. We identified 2 distinct strands of her work — the work on the substantive topic, and methodological innovation. This has helped her articulate her goals much more clearly even though sometimes the two overlap considerably in practice.
We also talked about writing. As an undergraduate C studied creative writing but that aspect of her writing life has been subordinated to the forms that are valued in her professional life. The combination of not needing to ever apply for promotion again and the increased attention being given to ensuring that academic research has an impact beyond the scholarly community creates the conditions for C to confidently explore wider stylistic variety in her writing.
C has also become more interested in blogs and other new forms of writing and publishing. Initially she explored these as research sources, but as her knowledge of social media increases she is also beginning to explore these new forms of expression for herself. In our discussions, I have helped her identify the sources of her reluctance and fears and clarify her goals in this work.
We have discussed professionalism, purpose, audience, ethics and related issues. I can’t and won’t tell C what to do, but I can ask the questions that help her figure it out for herself and try new things with confidence.
An unexpected opportunity, involving a job which carried a prestigious title but involved working at a different type of institution, gave new urgency to our discussions.
Even the decision to apply was a subject of our discussion. It wasn’t clear if she wanted it. It involved moving. The timing didn’t fit well with her children’s lives. The differences in institutional type were significant. That said, the prestige and the funding associated with the position were attractive. And the geographic location was close to colleagues C was interested in collaborating with more fully.
We talked about the issues. She decided to apply. I helped with the application. She got short-listed.
Before the interview we talked about how this was not a no-brainer for her. She liked the position she had. This interview was definitely a two-way process. I helped her clarify what she wanted to find out. We also talked about what she wanted them to know about her so she could be confident that if she were offered the position, they approved of her plans.
The difference it made
She got the job. And then there were more discussions about whether to take it. She did. But the important point is that the process focused on C:
- What did she want to achieve in the next 15 years?
- What kinds of things did she want to do to get there?
- What would the funding enable? Is there another way to get funding for those things?
- What is the relative importance of graduate students? (big institutional difference)
- What collaboration did she want to engage in? what difference does this job make?
The unexpected opportunity mostly acted as a catalyst. It got C thinking about where she wants to go now. And it provided some deadlines for grappling with these difficult questions.
If you think C was successful in the first 15 years of her career, just wait.
This post was edited July 13, 2015. I’ve restructured my service offerings since it was first posted.
I established the Academic Writing Studio to create a central hub for encouraging and supporting a consistent writing practice.
The kinds of things described in this post would be covered in a 60-90 minute Wayfinding session.